Between driving real cars for CNET, I've been playing Turn 10 and Playground Games' new racing title Forza Horizon 2 for the past week on the Xbox One console. As was the case with the previous iteration of the series, Horizon 2 is centered around the eponymous and fictional Horizon music and automotive festival and is probably better described as a car-culture simulator than a racing sim.
There are no tracks in Horizon -- there are courses, but they all take place on (and off) public roads -- and the game places as high of an emphasis on exploring the huge, open world while doing crazy things in cars as it does getting across the finish line as quickly as possible.
Forza Horizon introduced an excellent in-game GPS navigation system that had me begging for a real-world counterpart. One of the most clever new additions to Forza Horizon 2 only manifests herself if you're playing on an Xbox with the Kinect sensor plugged in. Anna is your voice-activated digital assistant. Let's say you've just finished a race and want to quickly get to the next event. Don't touch the menu button -- just say "Anna, nearest event," and in seconds you'll have driving directions to the next fun thing to do.
The number of commands that you can give Anna are a lot more limited than Siri or Google Now -- basically, you can only ask for directions to places, events, hubs, and road trip starting points -- but the execution is instantaneous. I love that I can play this game for hours and never open a single menu. Anna is one of the best reasons to leave your Xbox One's Kinect plugged in.
The open world is even more open
This year's Horizon Festival takes place in the South of France, spilling over into Italy, on a sprawling map that is three times larger than the Colorado area in the first Horizon title. The game's dynamic day and night cycles are joined by dynamic weather -- basically, it rains every now and then -- that adds to the atmosphere of the game and affects the handling of the cars therein.
With a lot of area to cover, it can take while to get from end to end, so Horizon 2 has the drivers take "road trips" between multiple racing hubs that are scattered across the map and where a variety of championship racing events take place, rather than asking you to head all of the way back to the central Horizon Festival Hub as in the previous game. The result is more time doing things in Horizon 2 and less time getting there.
It's not just bigger; it's also more immersive. Perhaps the thing that I like best about Horizon 2 is the lack of loading screens. Forza Motorsport 5 allowed me to hop around to some of the best race tracks on the planet, but asked me to sit and stare at a loading screen for minutes at a time between races. Horizon 2's world is totally open, so you could drive from Nice to Montello without a single loading screen. And because the races inhabit that same open world, most of the terrain data is already loaded by the time you get there, so the load screens that I did see were minimal and brief.
Playground Games has even managed to fix annoying multiplayer lobbies. Historically, game lobbies were lists of other players' gamertags and ranks that you were forced to stare at while you waited for the race to start. Horizon 2 has Car Meets, which are a blend between the ForzaVista feature of the Motorsport series and online lobbies. Rather than stare at the list of names, which is now tucked into a corner of the screen, you can walk around the other players cars, check out their custom graphics, and take a look inside while you chat them up and decide what you want to do. This one twist takes a boring but necessary element of online gaming and makes it interesting.
Horizon 2 for the Xbox One the makes use of the Drivatar technology that debuted on Forza Motorsport 5. For those unfamiliar, this cloud-based software analyzes the way that your friends and other players drive in the game to create AI Drivatar representatives that appears in your races even when they're not online. The result is that it's not a random grouping of names, but your friends who line up with you on the grid at the start of every race. The game goes out of its way to say there's no AI in Horizon, but that's clearly what this tech is: a more personalized AI.
These Drivatars also populate the open world, so I may find myself joined on that Sisteron-to-Saint-Martin road trip by the digital likenesses of my friends. The dark side of Drivatar tech is that it will make you hate your friends when their digital doubles spin you out just before crossing the finish line or plow headlong into you when you're tooling around the open world.
Rubber-banding (the artificial speeding up or slowing down of off-screen AI drivers to keep the race close) isn't an issue in races, but I did notice a bit of weirdness outside of the races. I'd just taken in-game delivery of a 1963 VW Type 2 microbus and decided to take it on one of the road trips between racing championships. At just 50 horsepower, I was expecting it to be a long trip, but the hub-to-hub trips aren't races so I was looking forward to driving one of the slowest cars in the game without feeling rushed.
I didn't expect to find myself surrounded by a small pack of five or six Drivatar AI in very fast cars who, confused by programming that forced them to stay near me even at my VW's top speed of about 65 mph, settled on just ramming into me over and over again. I was right -- it was a long trip, just not in the way I expected. Interestingly, previous and subsequent road trips that I took in faster cars didn't present that issue, and the Drivatars never acted this weird in free-roaming mode. The moral of the story: even when the game says it's not a race, it's almost always a race. That or AI just really hate VW buses.
Where we're going, we don't need roads
The new cross country race type is a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Joining the circuit and point-to-point race types, which are largely confined to some sort of course is the new cross country race, a variation on the point-to-point race type. In theory, these often totally off-road races ask you to find your own fastest way through the loosely defined course, opening up multiple routes and opportunities for exploration. In practice, the fastest way is usually a straight line, which means that you and your rivals will be crashing through vineyards and laying waste to fences as you sprint from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Personally, I'm not a fan of this race type, simply because the game seems to force you into them with little regard for the type of car that you happen to be driving. I think these races could be fun in cars like the Subaru WRX STI or a Jeep Wrangler Renegade, but infuriating if you started a race series that limits you to cars like a BMW Z4. What's even more annoying is that a game that asks me to spend so much time off-road doesn't offer off-road tires and suspension as an option for customizing. I'd gladly build a rally Mazda Miata if off-road suspension were available, but Horizon 2 sticks with Forza Motorsport's race track-centric car customization engine, so I'm always left scratching my head as to what upgrades to choose for the races ahead.
The Bucket List
Scattered around the game's world and presented between championships are fun diversions for the game's progression: Showcases and The Bucket List. We saw showcases originally appear in the first Horizon game. These races put you behind the wheel of a special car and pit you against non-car competitors. In one Showcase, you're racing a Ferrari Challenge Stradale through the mountains against the Frecce Tricolori -- the Italian version of the US Navy's Blue Angels aerobatics team. Another has you racing against a train, all the while the road weaves over and under the track.
The Bucket List involves a group of exotic and noteworthy cars hidden around the game's map, each with an associated challenge. One will have you racing through traffic in a LaFerrari, while another will have you pulling off sweet jumps in a 1968 Dodge Dart HEMI Super Stock around shipping yard. There are dozens of Bucket List challenges to find, and that's in addition to the multiplayer game modes, speed trap and speed zone challenges, barn finds, and so many more distractions from the daily grind of racing.
Other small tweaks and improvements include more virtual radio stations with more music choices while exploring that area around the Horizon Festival -- I've been unironically loving the new classical music station that appears after the second or third championship. A new leveling and perks system allows a bit of player progression, unlocking minor abilities, experience and payout boosts, and giving the player a chance to win bonus cash prizes and cars with the new "wheel spin" random rewards system.
More immersive, much improved
Forza Horizon 2 isn't perfect, but I like that it's bigger in scope and that there's more to do. I especially love the improvements and the Anna implementation of Kinect voice commands -- I wish voice navigation in real cars was so quick and accurate. Despite occasionally getting cursing mad at the new cross-country races and a few bouts of confusion with the Drivatar AI, Horizon 2 is a solid addition to the Forza franchise, and I was more than happy to immerse myself for hours in this car culture simulator. As a longtime fan of serious racing simulators like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, I'm a bit surprised by how much I'm enjoying this more casual title.